CK Retro Review: The Wall by Pink FloydPosted: January 13, 2014
Roger Waters’ thematic aspirations reached their apex with 1979’s The Wall, the first Pink Floyd concept album to feature a (sort 0f) linear storyline that allowed the double-album to blossom into an elaborate stage show and a motion picture. It’s unwieldy in points, suffers at times from an overload of exposition at the expense of the extended, evocative musical passages that the band had perfected in the past, and bogs down a bit with negativity in the final act. In spite of all that, this big, lumbering project includes some stunning peaks and turns out to be downright moving. Here is a song-by-song review.
26. “Waiting For The Worms”- A jumbled rehash of some of the album’s musical themes married to Waters’ visions of a fascist takeover. This macabre turn in the final act is by far the album’s weakest idea.
25. “Don’t Leave Me Now”- The old “can’t live with you, can’t live without you” cliche is articulated in rather tortured fashion by Waters. It’s hard to take him seriously when he’s screeching all over the place. It’s also a shame that one of Rick Wright’s few showcases on the album is such a limp affair.
24. “Stop”- Pink, the main character, wakes from his stupor to ask for judgment. Just a fragment of a song.
23. “Goodbye Cruel World”- It’s hard to get too worked up, good or bad, for this little ditty whose main purpose is to show Pink’s complete despair as the first album comes to a close.
22. “Empty Spaces”- A brief, atmospheric plot-pusher that’s most notable for Waters’ effectively quivering lead vocal and the backward messages that add to the album’s overall tone of mystery and menace.
21. “Another Brick In The Wall (Part III)”- The continuation of the first disc’s main musical theme downplays the disco from the earlier passages and concentrates on a harder-rocking approach.
20. “In The Flesh”- The execution of Pink’s descent into fascism is pulled off well enough, as the band reprises the opening number with a new set of lyrics that takes a dastardly turn. This is the beginning of the section of the album that has always bothered me though; Pink’s transformation into a monster has always struck me as too extreme and a shaky leap in logic. I get it that Waters is telling a cautionary tale, but the bile here is still tough to swallow.
19. “The Thin Ice”- It’s interesting that Waters gets often unfavorably compared to David Gilmour as a vocalist, but part of that is due to the fact that he usually took on the wordier, less melodic sections whereas Gilmour got the more lyrical stuff. This brief song which welcomes our hero into the world with a dire warning is a good example of this phenomenon.
18. “Young Lust”- To me, the band were never quite as convincing as bluesy rockers as they were when they summoned more elusive atmosphere. This song has earned a lot of classic rock airplay over the years even though it feels like the band is purposely and ironically trying to imitate the arena rock posturing that was popular at the time. Gilmour definitely sinks his teeth into it though, and the phone bit at the end is great.
17. “Bring The Boys Back Home”- Waters has stated that the song refers not just to soldiers but to anyone who has figuratively gone off to dangerous places, like the main character of The Wall. It’s an interesting concept that the album doesn’t always articulate as well as this elemental, orchestra-backed plea manages to do.
16. “Vera”- I always want “Vera” to go on a little bit longer, since the promise of a moving song is contained in this sketch. As it is, it’s a sweet, sad postage stamp.
15. “The Trial”- How do you wrap up something so brimming with ideas as The Wall? By constructing a musical theater-based number that sounds like Gilbert & Sullivan meets Freud. Your feelings about it are likely tied to your tolerance to this kind of project as a whole, but you can’t deny that it’s comprehensive in tidying up the loose ends. Plus, it gives some overdue catharsis with the final chant.
14. “Is There Anybody Out There?”- Bob Ezrin, the album’s co-producer, apparently had a lot to do with the composition of this mostly instrumental track, even though Waters’ gets full credit. Oddly enough, one of the most Floydian passages on the album comes courtesy of session man Joe DiBlasi on classical guitar and Michael Kamen’s understated string arrangement.
13. “Hey You”- It’s a bit too wispy to rank any higher, despite its status as one of the group’s most oft-played songs. There are nice moments, such as Gilmour’s self-harmonies and the clever reprise of the “Another Brick In The Wall” motif in the instrumental break. Waters’ plea for empathy in the lyrics is only intermittently effective, although his vocals in the final section are powerful. So it’s somewhat hit-and-miss for me.
12. “In The Flesh?”- Gilmour’s strutting guitar and Mason’s machine-gun drums are the aural equivalent of Waters’ sneer in this table-setting opening track. “Is this not what you expected to see,” might as well have been Roger’s preemptive strike on any critics who would bemoan the band’s stylistic change on the album to a more lyric-driven mode. Still, as a thundering colossus of sound, this works just fine.
11. “The Show Must Go On”- The Beach Boys homage is performed beautifully, even if only Bruce Johnston showed up to help out on the harmonies. The lyrics capture Pink at a turning point, desperately trying to salvage his humanity even as the pressures of his life push him further into oblivion.
10. “The Happiest Days Of Our Lives”- An example of an interstitial number that soars to impressive heights during its brief existence. Waters spits out some cutting lines about the nastiness and hypocrisy of teachers as the band rumbles behind him. Some skyyscraping chord changes and a rare showcase for Nick Mason on drums follow it up for one of the musical high points on the album.
9. “Another Brick In The Wall (Part I)”- This passage expertly builds the tension that is eventually exploded by Part II. It’s got some nice little interplay between Gilmour’s flickering guitar, Waters’ insinuating bass lines, and Wright’s blanketing synthesizers, a fleeting example of the band’s ability to evoke a desired mood with seemingly little effort.
8. “Outside The Wall”- Waters closes the book on this massive undertaking with a relative whisper. The simple humanity of it is impossible to deny, as is Waters’ weathered but resilient vocal.
7. “Mother”- Waters is one of those songwriters who will put the listener in a position of discomfort at times to get his point across. For as lovely as this song is in terms of the lilting music, it’s subject matter is quite dark when you think about the smother, I mean, mother character and her well-meaning but ultimately severely damaging effect on Pink’s maturation. That’s Jeff Porcaro of Toto on drums, filling in for Nick Mason, who apparently couldn’t wrap his head around the off-kilter time signatures.
6. “One Of My Turns”- A nice balance here is struck here between the necessity to advance Pink’s story and the ultimate goal to engage the audience with compelling music. Waters’ acts out the lyrics well, from the dejected first part to the explosive second half. And it finds room for a great instrumental break with the band clicking as a unit.
5. “Goodbye Blue Sky”- Waters gets criticized at times for melodic simplicity, but there are several songs on the album that feature tunes that are quite haunting. This acoustic lament is undoubtedly one of them, buoyed by the pretty harmonies and Gilmour’s affecting led vocal. Once upon a time, these acoustic reveries were crucial components of Floyd albums; this memorable track proved that they could still quiet things down in mesmerizing fashion.
4. “Another Brick In The Wall (Part II)”- When The Wall is at its best is when Waters’ obsessions break out of their very personal origins and resonate beyond to a wide swath of people who can relate. All of the five-star songs really fit that bill, and this unlikely hit single is the perfect example. It’s popularity is often credited to the faux disco that the band pulls off with aplomb, although fans of their past work should know that their was a little funkiness lurking in their extended jams. What’s really striking is how Waters’ gives voice, figuratively and literally, to school kids, a group whose views are too often trivialized or viewed as unworthy. Throw in a fiery Gilmour solo at the end, and this song deserves every bit of its popularity and cultural ubiquity.
3. “Run Like Hell”- There is a great dichotomy at play here between the threatening paranoia of Waters’ lyrics and the music, co-composed by Waters and Gilmour, which rings somewhat triumphant in spite of the words. The same kind of tension is achieved by Gilmour’s guitars, which flicker ominously as an underpinning only to come crashing in gleefully with airy chords. Wright gets a rare spotlight with a whining synthesizer solo that’s far more aggressive than his typically dreamy work. It’s a thrilling rock song which a trenchant warning to the audience about the importance of constant vigilance.
2. “Nobody Home”- One of the all-time great rock ballads came only after Ezrin challenged Waters to write another song for an already-teeming album. The music features Ezrin picking out the piano melody, Wright adding some subtle synthesizer effects, and the New York Symphony Orchestra providing gorgeous support. Although the lyrics contain references to both Syd Barrett at his most damaged and to Wright’s deteriorating state, Waters reveals more about himself here in some ways than he does with all of the autobiographical stuff on the first part of the record. In so doing, he makes it relatable to anyone who’s ever come to the hard realization that money and possessions don’t hold a candle to genuine human connection.
1. “Comfortably Numb”- More than any other song here, it can be removed from the context of the album and not suffer a bit. Gilmour’s melodic ease drives the track into the stratosphere; the guitar solo in between the two lyrical sections is rightfully one of the most iconic in rock history, while his vocals are fantastic. Waters meanwhile fits perhaps his most moving set of lyrics into this impeccable musical frame. There is a sense that the narrator has reached the end of himself, even as he desperately tries to make others see his true essence (“This is not how I am.”) Delivers chills every single time.
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